Synoptic Gaze: Surveillance Counter Culture

Protests are becoming commonplace events during the time of Covid-19. The surveillance of protesters and activists has been part of policing the public sphere for centuries but the techniques are changing and becoming more invasive as technology and media infiltrate every sector of society. Facial recognition apps and spyware apps such as Pegasis are available to governments, law enforcement and corporations across the globe, allowing surveillance targeting individuals, activists and protestors alike. Plebs are taking note of these invasive technologies and beginning to counter them with their low-tech measures.

The synoptic gaze is focused on the spectacle behind surveillance counterculture in the digital commons. In this series of 3 posters, I argue that society is tracked in every facet of their lives, but the public is resisting the omnipresent surveillance by gazing back at those who watch them. Through the use of democratized technologies that allow citizens to capture spectacles and rapidly disseminate information individuals are immediately able to report and share what they have discovered with the world. These 3 posters are designed in portrait format for use on street posts or on social media platforms.

The content of the posters reveals a cautionary but hopeful allegory about modern times. The concept will focus on the technological gaze and how it is being harnessed by both the surveillant and the surveilled to equalize the power dynamics, between governments, industries and the private sphere. As the scope of the internet grows, humanity faces the perils of exposure as they lose control of their privacy and identities: Contrary to this, the same technologies have democratized the tools for activists and the individual so they might resist unwanted intrusion in the digital commons.


According to FoucaultBentham’s Panopticon Prison was designed to watch many inmates using a single watchtower. Its design leaves the inmates exposed, never knowing by whom or when they are being observed. The design prevents inmates from committing further crimes. In contrast, the idea of Mathiesen’s synopticon is different, as it allows the surveyed to return the gaze of the observers and others. This effect becomes a participatory activity where society and its guardians, could be the surveilled or the surveillant at any time. This leaves all the participants fearing that the private, could become public at any moment. Though technology intrudes in the private sphere, it also reveals and resists these invasions into the public domain. In doing so snyoptisism keeps all the participants inline. Mathiesen claimed that synopticon and panopticon forces a close interaction or fusion between the two theories, which alternately gives power to the many, to observe the few. These ideologies gaze at one another to limit intrusive behaviours for both sides.


Surveillance is countered through sousveillance and its effects can be proven by humanity’s use of technology. Technology has been used to counter and resist intrusion into the private sphere and activate those who have common ideals. Guy Debord studied the use of the commons and the spectacle of consumption as a tool of resistance. The internet has quickly become the largest commons and spectacle, humanity has ever encountered and so by the use of counter technologies, the public resists via the internet. The common space of the internet has become a place for sharing spectacles with other publics. This allowed participants and whistleblowers to observe and report about those in power. User-generated content from the commons has shifted the power dynamics across the globe. Events such as the Arab Spring, the 99 Percent demonstrations or Occupy and the Umbrella Revolution, reveal human rights abuses that disrupt governments and industry. Events like these give platforms to those who are subjugated by their governments or industry and have turned the gaze of the world on to the perpetrators with internet technology.


Miniaturization of computer technologies has also contributed to the idea of sousveillance as it has allowed the surveilled to become discreet overseers. Sousveillance denotes the opposite of surveillance as “Sous” means from below: While alternately surveillance often occurs from above, sousveillance gets down to the level of the people and watches everyone including those in power. The miniaturization of computing technologies such as smartphones and cameras have made discreet forms of surveillance available to the public. Furthermore, the growing infrastructure of the web has made connectivity simple and accessible. Almost anyone anywhere can easily and instantly disseminate their observations. Miniaturization of technology, along with changing attitudes about activism, has democratized technology for citizens and has made anyone with a recording device a potential journalist. The public may face a world where they cannot escape the prying gaze of the watchtower, but they have also found low tech ways to combat the intrusions.


The public has discovered low tech methods to counter the forces of camera surveillance. Simply by covering cameras and turning off microphones when they are not in use the individuals can stop the gaze of others. Innovative methods of concealing search engine data, by surfing incognito or using alternate search engines such as Duck, Duck, Go are free tools of the digital commons that can help maintain a low profile. Alternately, protestors can simply turn off tracking, allowing them to fade into the crowd. Turning off other settings such as Geotags will further prevent authorities from tracking individuals. Society is becoming aware of the dangers behind sharing data online and there is a concerted movement towards limiting access to user data. As self-censorship has been created by the synoptic gaze, online privacy has become the norm for activists, hacktivists and savvy private individuals and alike.

In conclusion, humanity is in an unprecedented time of surveillance but the public and activists have discovered ways to counter the power dynamics of the synoptic gaze. Citizens can use technology and sousveillance to turn the gaze on the watchtower which in turn is beginning to equalize power in the commons.


Michel Foucault, In Discipline and Punishment: The Birth of the Prison
Stephen Hartnett, The Ideologies and Semiotics of Fascism: Analyzing Pound’s Cantos 12-15
Elizabeth A. Bradshaw, This is What a Police State Looks Like: Sousveillance, Direct Action and the Anti-corporate Globalization Movement
David Lyon, The Culture of Surveillance
Bill Marczak, John Scott-Railton, Sarah McKune, Bahr Abdul Razzak, and Ron Deibert. “Hide and Seek: Tracking NSO Group’s Pegasus Spyware to Operations in 45 Countries,” Citizen Lab Research Report No. 113, University of Toronto, September 2018.

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